Although we like to think of our leaders as common men and women, the reality is that they aren’t. It is their very ability to see a path through even the darkest of times that distinguishes them from everyone else. Rudy Giuliani demonstrated this quality after 9/11; Michael Brown showed a distinct lack of it during Hurricane Katrina. But what happens when the leader’s definition of leading clashes with the public’s? Queen Elizabeth II found herself in precisely this predicament in 1997. Her story is told (and, because no one really knows for sure what went on behind closed doors, hypothesized about) in Stephen Frears’ new film, The Queen.
Helen Mirren plays the title character who, as the movie opens, is cautiously welcoming her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). It is clear that Her Majesty is somewhat suspicious of Blair and his modern attitudes. Yet she does what is expected, following the protocol and establishing their working relationship.
Tragedy strikes when Princess Diana is killed in a car crash while being trailed by paparazzi. The Queen greets the news with mixed emotions; she recognizes it as a tragedy, particularly for her grandchildren, but at the same time she and Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) feel that Diana tarnished the image of the royal family. For that reason, they are surprised by the outpouring of grief that comes from the British citizens.
Then the screws tighten. The Queen makes no public statement about Di’s passing, which causes an outrage. News outlets and people on the street begin chiding her for a lack of compassion. To them, it is unfathomable that the ruling monarch would not publicly comment on such a tragedy. Even Prince Charles suggests that she do something to memorialize his ex-wife. As the criticism grows sharper, Blair tries to convince Elizabeth to do anything to help the country heal. He encourages her to put aside her personal feelings and do what’s right for her subjects. After hearing some of the things being said about her, Elizabeth realizes that the old way just isn’t working anymore. The public wants something different from her, and she’s torn between giving them what they want and following the old-guard rules. After much intense consideration, she finally speaks out a week later.
It would be easy for The Queen to condemn Elizabeth II. The pleasure of the movie, however, comes from the fact that it humanizes her and takes us fully into her thought process. (Or, more accurately, what Frears and writer Peter Morgan interpret as her thought process.) By doing so, the film serves as a fascinating look at a leader backed into a corner and forced to come to terms with the fact that the “traditional way” no longer cuts it. Yes, some of the woman’s personal animus toward Princess Diana factors into her reticence. Also, as Prince Phillip points out, Diana was no longer technically a part of the royal family at the time of her death. But there’s more to it than that. Elizabeth subtly reminds those around her that she has had duty and service drilled into her head from the time she took the throne in her teenage years. She’s been trained to be forward-thinking and, as she puts it, to not wear her emotions on her sleeve. It is, she believes, exactly what the British people expect of her.
Then, suddenly, they want something different. It is an exceptional situation, but still. They want her to be human, to share their grief, to offer some solace. Her resistance only causes them to demand it further. The film shows how this is a confusing time for Queen Elizabeth. Making a statement would be giving the people what they want, not what she thinks is best. Failing to make a statement breeds resentment and an idea that the monarchy is “out of touch.” That’s the central theme of the movie: What happens when the tried-and-true way of doing things no longer meets the needs of the people and how does a leader choose the right path?
Helen Mirren is nothing short of brilliant in the title role. Her job is hard. Queen Elizabeth is trained to be outwardly reserved, yet as a human being, she certainly has feelings inside. Mirren conveys all those mixed emotions that are under the surface while still maintaining her character’s outer shell. It’s a perfect example of a multi-layered performance. Michael Sheen is also fantastic, playing Tony Blair as the increasingly panicked voice of reason. As the story progresses, we sense his anxiety more and more. He feels a potential disaster coming on and must battle the Queen’s resistance to avoid it. Interestingly, Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t play the two as complete adversaries. In fact, despite their differences, Blair genuinely understands Elizabeth in a way few others do. He empathizes with her, even while trying to shake her into awareness.
The Queen is dramatic in a very human kind of way, and its theme is engrossing from start to finish. Yet it also has touches of humor, especially from James Cromwell, who brings a sly wit to the elitist Prince Phillip.
I remember taking literature class in college, where we learned the three basic types of stories: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. About 99% of movies deal with one of the first two. The Queen is the rare one to explore the third. At the most fundamental level, Queen Elizabeth is not struggling with her subjects; she’s struggling with herself, trying to confront the idea that her protocol simply must change. That, in real life, it did a week later may be considered by some to be “too little, too late.” As it plays out in this movie, though, I found it touching in a way I didn’t expect. Say what you will about any leader: the best ones are those who aren’t afraid to adapt when the situation calls for it.
( out of four)
The Queen is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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